Forgive me for coming so late to your party, I was stuck in the past doing boring but very necessary work. How are you? Good? I’m glad. Hope you didn’t miss me too much.

So, I recently found myself confronted with a question I have never asked myself before. Is South African food boring? Is South African, African – black flood bland?  This bizarre question came to mind after a friend expressed their surprise at the lack of variety in South African food compared to the variety and complexity found in traditional Indian food.   It was the second time someone made such a comment, the first time another friend concluded that Ethiopian food was much better compared to South African “traditional”- African black cuisine. In fact she said: Black South Africans don’t have a “cuisine” to speak of. We might as well be eating grass as far as she was concerned.

On both accounts I felt as though there was an underlying expectation that I must agree with this suggestion as it was a fact not just an opinion. Which is how I ended up asking myself if South African food is boring in comparison to most other foods around the world? Was that a fair question? Should it be the same? I had never up until that moment questioned South African black food, I had never compared it to anywhere else, and I had never felt compelled to. South African food was South African Food, Indian Food was Indian food as was German food.  So I let my mind wonder a bit….

I started thinking about a question which has been a mild, read, very mild curiosity in the past several years since I left home.  I’m talking about a place my family and I went to almost every day for our daily and or weekly supply of vegetables, carrots, beetroot, lettuce  potatoes, green peppers, grapes, apples, oranges, mountains of spinach and the list goes on and on and well on.  That place was called Fruit and Veg City. Each visit yielded trolleys or boxes full of fruits and vegetables. Some of it was destined to be juiced, some of it was eaten raw, and some was cooked. Even though I myself am a self-confessed non-shopper, I used to enjoy trips to Fruit and Veg, because I could pick on some grapes here and there, sample some nuts or the latest cheese as we moved along examining the latest harvest of tomatoes or avocadoes. Also the trips didn’t last too long for my mother in this case, was often very specific about what she wanted. So when I moved to back to Johannesburg 13 years ago I began asking myself, whatever happened to Fruit and Veg City?  They didn’t seem to have as many outlets in Johannesburg or perhaps I was not going to or living in the right areas.

I wondered more frequently about the where abouts of fruit and veg city when I had my own place and was finally in a position to host dinner parties. I never quite verbalized this missing link in my life but I quietly substituted it with whatever produce I could find at Woolworths or Pick and Pay which never seemed to be adequate. The fruits and Vegetables didn’t feel like they were harvested from the same soil. They didn’t have that “marketplace of old feel, where farmers brought their fresh produce from their farms to be sold to the public”  As brothers Brian and Mike Coppin intended when they first opened a Fruit and Veg Store in Kenilworth, Cape Town in 1993.

Soon enough though I started hearing about this amazing place called the Food Lovers Market, everyone was raving about it. It was an upmarket place to shop for food. “Mostly rich people go there” I was told. And since I was not rich I never went. Even though people told me they sold good food for some reason I never felt targeted by the brand. Who are they? Where do come from? The name sounded catchy enough, it had the right words, food, love and market.  In 2013 while on a work trip in Limpopo my crew and I stopped there for lunch. The food was good but pricey. I was in such a hurry to leave I forgot my laptop there forever. The next time I went to the shop was a few months ago with my sister and her husband who were buying fruits and vegetables for juicing. Oh they sell fruits and vegetables too at Food lovers? I asked. Yes, my sister replied. “They are fruit and Veg”. “As in fruit and Veg city?” I asked incredulous. Yes, my sister responded. I didn’t know that, I told her. In all this while I thought the Food Lovers Market was something completely new, a new brand in the market and not an evolution of an old one.  My mother knew that, which is why she no longer goes to Fruit and Veg. She now buys her vegetables at Woolworths and other places.

For whatever reason my brain never linked the two. The Food Lover’s Market is bold, slick and modern. Fruit and Veg City, was rustic, utilitarian and farm like.  It felt affordable. Now walking into Food lovers’ with dimmed lighting, shiny chrome finishes, minimalistic clean designs felt as if I was walking into a place that aspired to be a Woolworths. Everything is starting to look the same like most international airports and duty free shops.  Even though fruit and Veg City still exists, it is now on a far and receding background of the Food Lover’s Markets’ more fashionable brand “where food aficionados can  indulge in a range of gourmet foods”

So why am I telling you an old story as if it were new? Sometimes we need to change and experiment with a lot of things in order to understand the reason why things worked the way they did or were the way they were in the first place. The first time around.  As you well know by now organic food is the new rage.  By organic I mean the “organic produce and other ingredients grown without the use of pesticides, synthetic fertilizers, sewage sludge, genetically modified organisms, or ionizing radiation. Which includes, animals that produce meat, poultry, eggs, and dairy products do not take antibiotics or growth hormones”. And the way things are eventually only the richest will afford to eat the freshest, real food on the market. After all the processed foods, all the synthetic flavours and colourants, all the advancement in technology which has allowed us to produce a lot of food fast, all of it has brought us here. To eating “organic” fruits and vegetables grown locally, in season, with very little to no chemicals, because that is what benefits our bodies.  This is what works not always but a lot of the time.  Let’s not forget that this is the same diet that produced the strongest, healthiest slaves (in all history) who helped built Africa and the free world.

So how does this story answer my initial question, is South African, African, Black food boring? It doesn’t.  I think “traditional” South African food is boring in the same way healthy food is boring. Meals without additives, colourants, fat etc., simple and clean. Three colours on most days and 7colours on a Sunday, if you’re lucky. Although of course this diet is fast changing from household to household into a global diet of high fats and sugars.  In reality cooking does not begin in the kitchen, it begins with the soil on which the seeds are planted. By the time the food is ripe and ready to be eaten it already has all the ingredients and the necessary nutrients we need. The spice is in the soil. The sauce is in the rain the flavour is in the seeds.

As we all know the food we eat on the daily basis is influenced by a number of factors including  but not limited to; time, culture, economy, politics, the environment and finally – personal taste.  What ends up on our plates on a daily basis is influenced by one or all of those factors, most of which are systemic to free market, capitalist, democracies.  In general South African food in my opinion is as diverse as the people who call South Africa home. Regarding South African traditional black food – it is a simple diet, the food is as good as the soil from where it was planted and the person who prepares it. If the soil is not good, then there’s very little a chef can do to increase the nutrient content. Most chefs know this, everything else is just a tool to fool the eye and the palate into thinking it is consuming nourishing food because it looks and tastes good.

Today, many have forgotten what the Food Lover’s Market once was, a family run business with the aim of bringing the freshest most affordable fruits and vegetables to the market.  This in many ways is no different to the African/black way of life before colonialism.   This is the lesson I have been learning; the past is the future we don’t yet understand. It is because we didn’t understand or appreciate our own way of doing things that we were led astray. It is because we didn’t understand why our diet was structured in the way it was in the past that we can be easily challenged by others who believe themselves to be far superior.  It because of this that we are back to the future. Now we are all buying into these “new” trends as if they are  new inventions or “white people stuff ” when  “they” are copying what they found us doing here before they convinced us  that our way of life was backward and evil. This from people who have dedicated their lives to the study of the African, black way of life for centuries. It is only by understanding the past that we can fully evolve.

So yes, if you are used to eating Indian food, real South African Black food might not be interesting for you and that’s ok. Taste is not after all, an objective science. It is what you like.

Bon Appétit!

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